June 04, 2003

Is Experimental Music Today Really Experimental?

I've been thinking about what it means to call your music 'experimental' and it seems that in 2003, the experiments have all been performed.

Is music that morphs sound experimental? Morphing timbres has been used in many pieces, Lansky, Risset, et al, and even used in popular Hollywood films (Willow in the tent scene).

Is microtonal music experimental? After Partch and Haba, et al, it would seem that microtonal music is old hat. We can come up with new scales and explore them, but isn't that what composition is about? Would employing new software devices to explore these realms be considered experimental in 2003?

Is the use of noise experimental? Since the work of Varese, the use of noise has become fairly well-trodden territory. It would seem to be if an entire genre of music has developed around a musical technique than it is no longer experimental - Noise music .

Is the use of stochastics or randomizing procedures experimental? Since Cage and Xenakis explored this territory so thoroughly in the last century I find it hard that it could be considered such.

Is the use of computers to write music or to search for patterns or to generate passages or timbres experimental? Again, very well-explored territory.

Is ths use of computer-generated speech or vocal timbres experimental? Again, with Lansky's work and the use of speech synthesis embedded in most PC's (although not utilized well by software) I can't see how artificial vocalisms can be considered experimental.

Good composers, IMO, look for unexplored combinations of timbral, textural and melodic elements. That is the nature of the search for newness that all good artists indulge in. Is it possible that there will be no more experimental music?

And while I indulge in these thoughts, is it possible that without experimentalism there is no more avant-garde? Leonard Meyer predicted that in the near future, a dead end would be reached in experimentalism and that musical styles would freeze, in the same manner that Egyptian art had become frozen.

One can certainly imagine amazing new musics produced from combining the many diverse elements we have at our disposal today. One brilliant innovation in compositional technique and new musical fashions emerge. But these new fashions, IMO, cannot claim to be the new order of music; the new avant-garde if they are merely mixing known elements. They are just today's music, fresh and lively. One of the great reasons to keep up with the electronic scene. If new musical styles are going to develop, experimental or not, it will be here in the world of electronica.

Am I missing something? Is there some new realm that experimentalists are exploring that I've left out? Does being avant-garde not imply experimenting?

Posted by jeff at June 4, 2003 01:08 PM

Thank you for addressing some important ideas. As a performer, (not a composer), I have wondered about this myself.

Looking at music history, though, radical ideas have always arrived out of nowhere as soon as people begin to ask these same questions. I think we have been spoiled over the last 50 years by the ability to generate an astonishing range of sonorities possible from electronica. Avant garde has never been so easy!

Where the next wave will break is anyone's guess, but rest assured; it will break.

Posted by: twpeters at June 10, 2003 05:51 PM

I remember reading that Varese said something like - "I do not write experimental music. The experimenting is done before I write the music"

Posted by: mm at June 21, 2003 04:27 PM

I also have to agree that the "next wave will break" as it has been broken from time and time again. We cannot forsee what direction music is headed because we know what we know and all that is before us, nothing more. 100 yrs. ago was the idea conceivable that we would be creating music digitally and have the ability be broadcast it on a worldwide network with the click of a button? The fortuity is part the intrigue that engages us and fuels our passion to explore the possibilities. I have to diagree that all theories and facets have already been realized and circumvented. It is vital we continue to experiment, would you want to live in a world of Brittany and Justins?

Posted by: Metrobot at September 10, 2003 07:47 AM